Sociolinguistics: Substrates and borrowing

Sociolinguistics: Substrates and Borrowing

The language(s) which predated the arrival of Arabic have often left vestiges in it, mainly lexical but in some cases phonological and morphological. In the dialects of North Africa, there is a modest Berber substrate, the result of ‘imperfect group learning during a process of language shift’ (Thomason and Kaufman 1988 off; see Aguadé, Taine-Cheikh, this volume) that is mainly lexical but has a few morphological elements too, as well as a smattering of Vulgar Latin vocabulary from earlier colonists.

At the other end of the Arab World, a substantial example of a substrate is to be found in certain north Yemeni dialects, where fundamental elements of inflectional morphology have been affected, producing inter alia the so-called k-perfect verb paradigm, unique in the Arabic-speaking world, and the /š/ reflex of the 2fsng enclitic pronoun referred to in §.. as šinšinna, which may then have been ‘exported’ from Yemen to the east and south-east of Arabia via later migrations (see Watson, Holes, this volume).

The problem here, though, is our limited knowledge of the language which, historical accounts of Yemen’s demography suggest, lies behind these apparently substrate elements: Himyaritic (Robin 2007), a Semitic relative of Arabic whose speakers dominated the south-west of the Arabian Peninsula from the first century BC to the sixth century. We know from the tenth-century Yemeni historian al-Hamdānī that the remote locations where ‘pure Ḥimyaritic’ was spoken in his day (see Rabin 1951, esp. the map on extrapolated from al-Hamdānī’s description) are precisely the regions of Yemen where the putative substrate Ḥimyaritic elements are found today (cf. Behnstedt).²⁹

In the Gulf region, there is evidence of non-Arabic Semitic vocabulary in certain domains, notably agricultural practices, and toponyms, but also, arguably, in morphosyntax (Holes, this volume), of Mesopotamian origin. This is unsurprising given the centuries of political and economic contact and control that the Babylonians and their predecessors exercised over the northern Gulf littoral. But, again, because we know so little about the early language history of this region, it is difficult to be sure whether these (now obsolescent) Gulf Arabic words with cognates in Aramaic/ Akkadian are the remains of (a) a substrate; (b) ancient contact-induced borrowing; (c) more recent borrowing (i.e. an ‘adstrate’) from other Arabic dialects (or Persian) into which the Aramaic/Akkadian items had been borrowed at an earlier period; or (d) a combination of more than one of these processes occurring at different periods of history (see Holes, this volume).

Aramaic also had an influence on the lexis and possibly certain morphological and syntactic structures of the Arabic dialects of the Levant and northern Fertile Crescent (i.e. of northern Iraq, Syria, and southern Turkey (see the chapters of Procházka, Lentin, this volume)). On the other hand, the Egyptian dialects show virtually nothing which could be described as a Coptic substrate (Behnstedt; Behnstedt and Woidich, this volume), but rather small-scale borrowing in limited areas, especially rural terminology—measures of size and weight, tools, irrigation terms, soil and field types. This situation is probably a consequence of the early, rapid, and large-scale migration of the Arabs into Egypt.

Related Post Sociolinguistics : Geography and economy, Arabic dialects

The Ḥimyarites left many inscriptions, but the vast majority of them are written in late forms of Sabaic, a much older ‘imperial’ language of southwest Arabia, to which they considered themselves heirs. Only three inscriptions (all poetry) seem to be in the different idiom, which has been dubbed, because of these differences, ‘Ḥimyaritic’, but the texts are very difficult to decipher with any certainty. It has recently been argued (Stein) that the differences in these three texts are in fact illusory, and that in all probability the Ḥimyarites spoke a form of late Sabaic as well as using it in their inscriptions.

Whatever the truth of this claim, it does not affect the argument advanced here, since late Sabiac/Ḥimyaritic contains exactly the same ‘non-Arabic’ morphological elements (e.g. the k-perfect, daw as a negative particle, see Watson, this volume) which occur in no other Arabic dialect and which must therefore be the substrate source of these same elements in the Yemeni Arabic dialects which have them.  

Sociolinguistics: Substrates and borrowing

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